Date of Award

Spring 1-1-2012

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

English

First Advisor

William Kuskin

Second Advisor

Kirk Ambrose

Third Advisor

Tiffany Beechy

Abstract

“Reclaiming Reason” is the first full-length study of Geoffrey Chaucer’s prose. Though scholars have written on the prose texts individually, the most pressing questions have yet to be considered: what, specifically, does Chaucer offer in these works, and why does he choose prose to do so? In pursuit of answers to these questions, “Reclaiming Reason” examines the politics of reading and interpretation in the late Middle Ages and discovers that through his prose works—the Boece, the Treatise on the Astrolabe, the Tale of Melibee, the Parson’s Tale, and the Retraction—Chaucer models principles of interpretation for a time when access to knowledge was controlled by a variety of self-serving authorities. Indeed, these works offer readers strategies to assert their own agency, and thus intellectual autonomy, in the midst of the struggle over the power to control and ability to interpret knowledge. By offering these methods in prose, Chaucer increases the accessibility of these subjects, while demonstrating the extensive benefits of these different forms of knowing (philosophical, scientific, judicial, and religious). In the Parson’s Tale, for instance, he offers the religious practice of confession and repentance as a possible path to individual salvation; in writing for a lay audience, Chaucer implies that this information equally profits secular “selves.” Thus, “Reclaiming Reason” argues specifically that these prose works are essential to a comprehensive understanding of Chaucer’s philosophy: that in an inherently flawed and fragmented realm, individuals can exercise authority over their choices by consciously developing habits of critical engagement. Overall, it makes a case for the recursive reading of Chaucer’s work through the strategies of rational analysis that he provides in the prose. Not only does such recursion shed new light on our understanding of Chaucer’s poetry, but by extension, the performance of Chaucer’s methods—the act of recursion—creates a progressive dynamic between the individual and whatever machine (i.e. text, scientific device, authority) he engages with to gain knowledge.

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